I just read a very exciting research paper, so excuse me if I gush some about the work of Helen Neville and colleagues from the University of Oregon. In their paper, Family-based training program improves brain function, cognition, and behavior in lower socioeconomic status preschoolers, (July 1, 2013, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), they report results that have profound implications for closing the achievement gap of young children from low income families.
The study randomly assigned 141 preschool children attending Head Start into three groups:
1) Head Start as usual,
2) Head Start plus Attention Boost for Children (child focused intervention), and
3) Head Start plus Parents and Children Making Connections-Highlighting Attention
The Parents and Children Making Connections-Highlighting Attention (PCMC-A) program consisted of an 8-week program in the evenings or on weekends during which parents and children participated in concurrent small groups. Parents learned strategies for regulating stress, discipline, using responsive language and facilitating children’s attention. Sessions for children taught them how to regulate their attention and emotions.
Groups 1 and 2 served as comparison groups. The second group provided a similar amount and type of child-focused attention intervention, but their parents only received 3 classes instead of the 8 provided to group 3.
Multiple assessments were administered to children, teachers and parents before and after the study to assess outcomes. Event-related brain potential, a measure of brain activity during cognitive processing, was used as an early measure of selective attention. The study also measured children’s nonverbal intelligence, receptive language, and pre-literacy skills. In addition, the researchers collected parent and teacher reports of children’s social skills and problem behaviors, as well as, parent self-reports of stress and parenting abilities and confidence. Finally, they used an observational parenting assessment of videotaped parent-child verbal interaction.
The results after the 8-week intervention were striking! The children in the PCMC-A intervention group (group 3), showed statistically significant increases in event-related brain potential, where increases were not seen in the other two groups. Children in the PCMC-A group also made statistically significant gains in nonverbal IQ and receptive language. Parent reports of children’s social skills and problem behaviors and parental stress showed greater improvements in the PCMC-A group relative to the other two groups. Furthermore, the observational parenting assessments indicated that the parents in the PCMC-A group showed more balanced verbal turn-taking during parent-child play, not heard in groups 1 and 2. Equally important, the study demonstrated that Head Start as usual, or supplementing Head Start by training the children, with light involvement of the parents, had little measurable impact.
This remarkable study shows that, for these low-income families, enhancing Head Start with a mere 8 weeks of focused parent and child intervention resulted in significant impacts on children’s brains; as well as, a wide range of measurable cognitive, language and behavioral changes. Working weekly with parents resulted in striking gains with effect sizes rarely seen in interventions with children. After all, it is parents who have the power to alter the daily family environment.
Policy and Practice Implications
Our last post, Nobel Prize Winner Calls for Assessing Parenting Quality, discussed how James Heckman calls for focusing early intervention on the family environment, including parenting. This parent-training study in Head Start is a perfect illustration of Heckman’s recommendation. It adds to the ever-growing tsunami of evidence showing that, to close the achievement gap, starting early and focusing on parent-child interaction are essential to success.
We often hear the term family engagement used in early childhood intervention programs. Especially since the birth of Head Start’s National Center on Parent, Family and Community Engagement in 2011, the term has evolved from parent involvement to family engagement:
In Head Start and Early Head Start programs, parent, family, and community engagement means building relationships with families that support family well-being, strong parent-child relationships and ongoing learning and development of parents and children alike. It refers to the beliefs, attitudes, behaviors and activities of families that support their children’s positive development from early childhood through young adulthood. Family engagement happens in the home, early childhood program, school and community, and is a shared responsibility with all those who support children’s learning.” (National Center on Parent, Family and Community Engagement, (November 2011) Using the Head Start Parent, Family, and Community Engagement Framework in Your Program: Markers of Progress, page 1).
Ample research suggests that developing parenting skills is a best practice. Yet, many Head Start programs have yet to incorporate substantive supports for parents in becoming more nurturing. For example, the Head Start as usual group in the Oregon study offered half-day preschool for children, but only limited parent educational activities consisting of:
1) only 3 home visits per year,
2) monthly phone contacts to share information about policy and services, and
3) 4 family activity nights per year (group socializations)
Note that the intervention that showed dramatic changes in child and parent behaviors in this study provided only 8 weekly 2-hour parent-child training sessions focused on a specific set of behaviors. In contrast, the child-focused comparison group, which included 3 parent sessions offered over 8 weeks, showed negligible effects. It is important to note that 3 parent sessions over a short 8 week period is a significant supplement to Head Start as usual, but still showed limited impact. Given all the evidence, shouldn't all Head Start programs be doing more to support families in learning parenting skills that will close the achievement gap and help their children be ready for school? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.
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Nine Ways Parenting Assessment Can Power Your Program.
Learn How Parenting Assessment:
1. Documents evidence of parenting outcomes
2. Tailors services to individual parenting strengths and needs
3. Monitors progress and guides service planning
4. Reinforces parenting progress and confidence
5. Serves as a parenting check-up as children develop
6. Shifts staff focus from child to parent-child interactions
7. Offers a common language for staff , families and programs
8. Builds reflective practice during supervision
9. Informs continuous quality improvement for staff and programs